March 1, 2007
Is there anything more that fishermen can do to call the government's attention to their plight?
Twice in three months, groups of aggrieved rural fishermen travelled to Georgetown to meet Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee to seek relief from the worsening plague of maritime piracy. Twice they received his now familiar assurances that he would "raise the matter with the Commissioner of Police" and that "steps were being taken to remedy the situation." What steps?
With a bow to bureaucracy, the busy minister told the frustrated fishermen that he could not deal with all of them at one time and urged them to "form an association and elect officers to represent their interest." The fishermen readily recognised the uselessness of this suggestion since the question was not one of representation but of remedy for repeated attacks.
The fishermen reminded the minister that some suspects, once arrested and charged for these crimes, are released on relatively small sums of bail and readily return to sea to continue to make their living by stealing outboard engines and fishing nets. In response to the suggestion that stiffer penalties be imposed and that the law be amended to treat piracy as an indictable offence instead of 'simple larceny' as at present, a bailable matter, Mr Rohee predictably promised "to bring it to the attention of the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions."
The matter does not end there for the minister responsible for public safety. The problem of piracy will not disappear if it is ignored long enough. On the contrary, it has worsened over the past fifteen years. Former Minister of Fisheries, Other Crops and Livestock, Satyadeow Sawh used to dash up to the Mahaica-Berbice and East Berbice-Corentyne Regions - which seemed to be the worst affected areas - to placate angry fishermen. Even in those days, President Bharrat Jagdeo had instructed the Guyana Defence Force Coast Guard to establish a permanent maritime base in Berbice. Has anything happened since then?
Piracy persists. Earlier in February, an armed gang robbed a fisherman and his crew in the Atlantic Ocean, about 11 kilometres off the Pomeroon River mouth. Unhurried and unafraid, the gang ordered the crew into the cabin and drove the boat to Liberty Island in the Essequibo River where they were abandoned. Later the same month, pirates in the Waini and Pomeroon rivers beat and robbed fishermen of their fuel, food and equipment and also hijacked one boat.
Fishermen are quite fed up. After frequent fruitless meetings with officials from the Ministries of Agriculture and Home Affairs, nothing tangible has been done to allay their fears. It is evident that the pirates are very familiar with maritime craft, confident in committing their crimes on water, comfortable with the anticipated non-response of the police, and have ready means of disposing of the stolen engines, nets and equipment to others in the trade.
Guyana's law enforcement agencies - the Police and Defence Forces - do not seem to possess the vessels and resources to pursue pirates nor did the recent budget promise to significantly augment their maritime capability with surveillance equipment and new vessels. Fishermen are contemplating street protests to grab the attention of the administration and convince the Ministry of Home Affairs of how serious the situation is. One irate fisherman told this newspaper: "It seems like only if we go on the streets something would happen to protect us fishermen."
He might have to do just that.